BEIRUT: The Syrian regime’s army began preparatory shelling for an assault on the last area outside its control near Damascus on Tuesday, a commander in the pro-government alliance said, building on its recent capture of the major suburb of Eastern Ghouta.
Recovering the Yarmouk camp and neighboring areas located south of the city would give President Bashar Assad complete control over Syria’s capital, further consolidating his grip on power.
Yarmouk, Syria’s biggest camp for Palestinian refugees since the mid-20th century, has been under the control of Daesh fighters for several years. Although the vast majority of residents have fled, the UN says thousands remain.
Each of the rebel groups controlling areas of Eastern Ghouta agreed to surrender deals that involved withdrawal to opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria including Idlib.
After the recapture of Eastern Ghouta, Assad still has several smaller pockets of ground to recover from rebels, as well as two major areas they hold in the northwest and southwest.
Besides the pocket south of Damascus, rebels still hold besieged enclaves in the town of Dumayr northeast of Damascus, in the Eastern Qalamoun mountains nearby, and around Rastan north of Homs.
The pro-government commander said the army had prepared for military action in the Eastern Qalamoun, but that Russia was working on the militants’ withdrawal without a battle.
In northwest Syria, the largest area still held by rebels, a government assault could bring Damascus into confrontation with Turkey, which has set up a string of military observation posts in the area.
Syrian state media reported Tuesday that rebels from the Jaish Al-Islam faction would quit Dumayr.
State news agency SANA said a new deal had been inked for the rebels to exit the town, around 50 km east of Damascus.
Jaish Al-Islam had maintained control over the town since 2016 under a “reconciliation” agreement with regime forces, whereby they would not fire at each other.
But the new deal, SANA reported, “provides for the departure of around 1,000 terrorists from Jaish Al-Islam to Jarabulus,” a rebel-controlled northern town.
Rebels had already begun handing over heavy weapons as part of the agreement, it said. Jaish Al-Islam has not commented on the deal.
It comes three days after Jaish Al-Islam evacuated the last opposition-held town in the onetime rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Tuesday that regime forces were keen to clear out the armed opposition from any territory near Damascus.
“Regime forces, after taking all of Eastern Ghouta, want to finish off the rest of the rebel fighters around the capital so they can secure it,” said observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
“This is why they’re replacing the reconciliation deals with evacuation agreements,” he told AFP.
Similar rebel departures were being negotiated for other nearby towns and for areas south of Damascus including Yalda, Beit Saham, and Babila, the observatory said.
Separately, Assad’s media retracted reports of an overnight missile attack on the central province of Homs, saying a “false alarm” had activated its air defenses.
“Last night, a false alarm that Syrian air space had been penetrated triggered the blowing of air defense sirens and the firing of several missiles,” a military source told state news agency SANA.
“There was no external attack on Syria,” the source added.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country’s role in the Syrian peace process must be to secure the channels of communication with Russia that are necessary to achieve a political solution to the country’s seven-year-old civil war.
“The aim we are pursuing in the Foreign Ministry is to keep Germany an appreciable part of the peace initiative,” Maas told a joint news conference with visiting Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“The aim … is that in our role we can be the ones who can prop open the window for dialogue with Russia,” he added.